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Saturday, April 07, 2007


After our trip to two jails in Kumasi, someone asked me what I thought about Ghanaian prisons. “The same thing I think of all prisons,” I said. “They’re terrible.”

“But worse in Africa,” he said, and there’s some truth to it, because they have twice the number of people they’re supposed to hold, they are filthy, there is 0 privacy (not unlike a Ghanaian village), no space, and I don’t think the amenities are quite adequate for comfort. The men look sick. I know they are poor because rich men don’t go to jail. The most positive thing I can say about Ghanaian prisons is that there are less than 20,000 people in them (they are supposed to hold no more than 4,000), which compares quite favourably to the situation in the United States, where 1 in 40 people live in jail, where you’ll also find 20 black me for every 1 in an American university.

The prison guards were kind, however, and in both jails they had started a basic literacy program. In the men’s jail, which is part of the King of Ashanti’s Palace compound, this program was being taught by two prisoners, both teachers, one of whom is being released because of the President Kufuor’s Ghana@50 amnesty. In the women’s jail it is being taught by a guard. It is this kind of program that Miia’s work is trying to build on, but she’s conflicted because she knows that whatever minor good a jail might be able to do is far exceeded by its harm. In a way the literacy programs are a harm reduction model, trying to make the best of a bad situation.

While we crammed myself, Conor, Miia, our friend from UNDP, and four guards into the warden’s tiny office at the women’s prison, a young woman was brought in by a guard, crying. She had been granted amnesty too, and they had called her mother to come pick her up. She dropped to her knees and begged not to be given to her mother, this teenage prisoner. The warden dismissed her with gentle laughter, said it was best, she’d be free, and explained to us afterward that they didn’t want the girl to reunite with her three nogoodnick friends who she used to run crimes with. She was most likely in for petty theft, like most of the women there, though for some it was pot smoking, which carries a ten-year bid. The exceptions are the babies, whose only crime was being born to a poor woman who got caught during pregnancy.

We pulled away from the women’s jail in our air-conditioned UN four-wheel drive and set out to find a cheap motel, which had a serious mosquito infestation that kept me awake much of the night, which may have fuelled my impatience with the next day’s conversations of Somalia and Congo history, of which we all talked like experts despite none of us having been there. That’s the way of the information highway. The real highway was littered with remnants of accidents, vehicles bashed beyond recognition. It’s probably just easier to leave the car corpse there than remove it, but it serves as an excellent reminder of the perils of reckless driving. Our UN driver, an uncanny kind of character, talked a lot about how drivers can be so impatient as he whipped from lane to lane and passed everything travelling under the speed of sound. Still, it took us all day to get back to Accra.
There was no rest for the hypocritical as we crossed Accra traffic at dusk to surprise my cousin Bell on her 50th birthday. This was my chance to meet three new Nigerian cousins: B, Do, and Ta. It was a beautiful evening, S&L went all out and the catered affair with live band was fancier than my wedding! Wonderful to get to know my Uncle Ben’s nieces and nephews on the other side of the world, dance with them, pose for posterity, gorge myself on a Nigerian/Ghanaian buffet, and meet their interesting friends, like Milly, who works for the world food program and hates Ghanaian rice.


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